By Hari Sreenivasan
A small community in Southeast Oregon was thrown into the national spotlight earlier this year when several dozen armed occupiers took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, leading to a month-long standoff with law enforcement.
They were protesting federal government control of local lands, a longstanding grievance in the American West. But some local residents say they were surprised the conflict took place there, because they have been working together to resolve land management disputes.
Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.
CAT WISE: The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has reopened to the public, but the headquarters complex remains closed, for now.
CHAD KARGES, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Once the repairs are done, and we’re back in the buildings and operational again in full, then we will open up the headquarters.
CAT WISE: Refuge manager Chad Karges says that while cleanup efforts from the occupation are ongoing, everyone’s attention is now refocused on the most important visitors here, birds.
CHAD KARGES: Malheur Refuge is about migratory birds, and so this basin is one of the most important spring migratory stopover points for migratory birds in the Western U.S. The basin serves as kind of like an international airport. It’s a hub.
CAT WISE: More than 320 species are found here, including sandhill cranes, Ross’s geese, long-billed curlews, and red-winged blackbirds. But the birds don’t just hang out on the refuge. They land wherever they want.
And at this time of year, that’s often on local private ranchland wet with spring runoff. It’s wonderful habitat for birds and for cows. Cows outnumber people by 14 to one in Harney County. There’s a long, proud tradition of ranching here, and cattle and haying are the main drivers of the local economy.
Cows and birds seem to get along quite well on private ranches, and many in the community appreciate the tourism dollars that birders bring in. But it’s when those cattle have to graze on public, government-owned land, which makes up 75 percent of the county, that conflicts between ranchers, and environmental groups, and the federal government become evident.
So, about 10 years ago, refuge manager Karges and a small group in this community decided to try a fairly novel approach to resolving those conflicts, face-to-face conversations. And those conversations have led to this, the High Desert Partnership, a nonprofit that was formed with one goal, collaboration.
MAN: Can you add to the committee, or does it need to be a standing committee?
MAN: I would just recommend that it is a standing group.
CAT WISE: Participants at this recent meeting, held at the historic Hotel Diamond, included ranchers, federal and local government employees, scientists, and conservation advocates, a diverse group you might not expect would share so many laughs.
Brenda Smith is the group’s director.
BRENDA SMITH, High Desert Partnership: We wanted to go beyond litigation when land issues were being challenged, I guess. If we could bring people together, maybe those things wouldn’t happen, and that is where we have seen our success.
CAT WISE: The group has made progress in other areas, too, like reducing the number of invasive carp that are hurting the ecosystem in Malheur Lake on the refuge, and improving flood irrigation systems on private ranches that benefit both cattle and the birds.
But how to manage cattle on federal lands, especially on the refuge, is an issue they are still sorting out.
Dan Nichols is a local rancher and an elected county commissioner. He’s a firm believer in the partnership, but he says it’s not always easy to find common ground, when ranchers feel their way of life is threatened.
DAN NICHOLS, Harney County Commissioner: There needs to be some change in the way the federal lands are managed. The West is continuously bombarded by threats of monuments, national parks, further restrictions on grazing. The lockup of millions of acres over a succession of time is causing a demise, to a certain degree, in the rural communities.
CAT WISE: Nichols says working through those tough issues has been a lot easier with the partnership in place.
DAN NICHOLS: We can sit down and talk. You still don’t agree on everything. That’s a given. That’s people. But you respect one another to listen, and to look at the world through their lens a little bit. And others are starting to see, because they have been here enough, that cattle aren’t all bad.
CAT WISE: Malheur is one of a small number of federal wildlife refuges around the country that allow limited grazing and haying, largely to help control plant growth and invasive species during times of year when cattle won’t impact the birds too much.
But when a long-term plan was being developed for the refuge, some hoped to get cattle off the land entirely.
BOB SALLINGER, Audubon Society of Portland: We think public lands need to be managed for their ecological value. That needs to be the top priority. And, too often, those ecological values have been sacrificed for cattle grazing.
CAT WISE: Bob Sallinger is the conservation director at the Portland Audubon Society. He says cattle cause a number of ecological problems, including trampling vegetation and nests, but after many, many discussions with the group, he decided he could live with some cattle on the refuge.
BOB SALLINGER: As we talked, we recognized that we did have some common ground on some of the biggest issues, particularly carp and flood irrigation, that we could agree to move forward on those issues, and also that there needed to be better science in terms of understanding the role that cattle are playing in this ecosystem.
CAT WISE: In fact, better science has become the shared goal of the various high desert partners. And they have put their trust in this group.
Esther Lev, Dustin Johnson, and Jess Wenick are scientists with different backgrounds, but the three are collaborating on projects around the refuge aimed at understanding how vegetation responds over time to different management tools, like flooding and grazing, but what they aren’t doing, they say, is taking sides.
ESTHER LEV, The Wetlands Conservancy: We’re not trying to dispute this or agree to this. We really trying to say, what goes on here? What is the ideal plant communities that we want and water regimes that are going to give the birds the habitat they need?
DUSTIN JOHNSON, Oregon State University Extension Service: We’re really only two years really into the sampling which is being done. We’re just now beginning to understand some of these changes that we’re seeing when we do certain things.
JESS WENICK, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: The beautiful thing that I see in this collaborative effort is the value of the shared science, because, too often, politics removes some of the tools from the toolbox that you are able to use on a site like this to meet your objectives.
CAT WISE: The data from their experiments will ultimately help refuge managers determine how many cattle are allowed to graze from year to year. But not everyone in the larger community is supportive of the High Desert Partnership.
ERIN MAUPIN, Rancher: So, just hold it and be careful. She will be butt it.
CAT WISE: Erin Maupin and her husband, Jeff, own a 1,700-acre ranch and 350 cattle. They, like so many ranchers in this area, need much more land than they own to feed those cattle. But they say they feel under constant threat that their government permits to graze on public lands will be taken away to preserve habitat for wildlife.
Maupin says she participated in early High Desert Partnership meetings, but stopped going after she felt like her views weren’t getting traction.
ERIN MAUPIN: I thought, if we could just get the truth out there, that we’re not here raping and pillaging the land, that environmental groups would recognize our grazing rights. I think if people would listen to us more in the collaboration, instead of we’re the only ones that have anything to give, and so we’re constantly giving, and giving, and giving.
CAT WISE: But those who are committed to the collaborative process say the recent occupation has strengthened their cause.
Partnership director Brenda Smith:
BRENDA SMITH: I think it might actually encourage people that, yes, this is something that’s important, and that we really need to work hard at it.
CAT WISE: The group recently received a $6 million grant from a state agency for wetlands habitat projects on and off the refuge, and they are now collaborating about how to spend that money.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Cat Wise in Harney County, Oregon.